Wildfires are an inconvenience that those living along the West Coast have grown more accustomed to as the years progress. An unfortunate and unnecessary side effect of more than 100 years of forest mismanagement, according to local experts.
“We need to do something about it,” Mike Ramsey, conservation district executive director, said. “We have a higher risk for fire here than most of us realize.”
Environmentally conscious community members gathered in the San Juan Island Grange Hall on Aug. 20 to learn about forest health from the San Juan Islands Conservation District, a local forester, a researcher and Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz.
A key factor in the rise of wildfires, besides humans, is climate change. The San Juan Islands and Skagit County are subject to warmer, drier weather, more so than surrounding areas, according to a University of Washington climate impact study from 2018.
Forester and ecologist Carson Sprenger, director of Orcas-based Rain Shadow Consulting, explained that forests in the islands are defined by high geophysical variability; low production soils; and human impacts.
Historically, Sprenger said, most island locations would experience a low-intensity fire every 7-15 years. Many of these fires were purposefully started by the Native Americans in the region and ceased to occur 100-150 years ago, he added.
Logging took many of the larger trees that were more resistant to fires, Sprenger continued. The removal of the larger trees and the proliferation of smaller trees has left the remaining clusters of trees densely populated. These tree stands experience overcrowding, an increase in dead debris and drought stressors causing a perfect storm for forest fires.
“I’ve been seeing it increasingly over the last decade,” Sprenger said.
Sprenger’s solutions for the increased fire risks caused by our dense forests include weeding out thinner trees and harvesting the biomass — various organic debris. Also recommended is carbon smart post-harvest slash burning to create biochar — a carbon-rich organic charcoal that can be used as fertilizer.
“We need to do something,” Sprenger said.
Sprenger noted there are challenges to his solutions which include labor, time and machinery costs; a lack of local foresters; the high cost of transporting the product to the mainland; a lack of local market for the products; public acceptance for active forest management; and the cost of open burning being so low.
“It’s not good for the environment and it’s a waste of really good material,” Sprenger said.
Energy opportunities for biomass
In 2017, Paul Hessburg, who has a doctorate in forest pathology, gave a TEDx talk in Bend, Oregon. Conservation district Energy Program Manager Ryan Palmateer shared a video of Hessburg’s presentation at the meeting.
In the last decade, an area of forest larger than the state of Oregon has burned in wildfires, according to Hessburg. He said these “mega-fires” are a result of how humans have improperly managed forests over the last 100 years.
The forests of history were patchier, Hessburg explained, with much evidence of fires.
According to Hessburg, Native Americans created wildfires for tens of thousands of years to make areas for planting and, in the spring, to help reduce the chance of an uncontrolled fire happening in the fall. Then came livestock, roads and railroads — all of which interrupted the natural paths of wildfires.
In 1910, a fire the size of Connecticut caused a shift in the way the United States handled wildfires, Hessburg explained.
“This would shape the way that we would think about wildfires in our society of the next hundred years,” Hessburg said. As a result, forests were shaped by wildfire suppression as opposed to surviving the fires.
Timber harvesting around WWII eliminated much of the old, resilient trees that had survived many blazes.
Now, there is what Hessburg calls an epidemic of trees. Summers are hotter, drier and windier and those conditions are expected to cause areas burned by wildfires to triple in the next three decades. He added that more than 60 percent of new houses are being built in those areas.
Hessburg suggests humans utilize prescribed burning, which causes less smoke, and mechanical thinning to help reduce the large, destructive wildfires that have regularly struck the West Coast.
“Where will you go to play when your favorite places are burned black?” Hessburg concluded.
Palmateer said he believes a good plan for the future of San Juan County is combined heat and power production using biomass collected from across the islands. He explained that it is efficient, clean, economical and sustainable.
The energy produced by a biomass plant would be around 2.6 million kilowatt-hours per year, compared to Orcas Power and Light Company’s community solar project, which averages 5,000-kilowatt-hours per year, Palmateer explained.
“This is one piece in a multi-pronged approach to what I call island resource independence,” Palmateer said. “What can we use wisely as a resource and what can we leave natural and untouched?”
A project of this caliber would cost $3-8 million, but Palmateer said it would pay for itself in time.
Rural biomass solutions
If burn piles are properly handled, the resulting biochar can increase carbon capture while decreasing carbon off-put, according to Kai Hoffman-Krull. Forests account for 30 percent of annual carbon sequestration, he added.
“What we’re trying to avoid here is pile burning,” Hoffman-Krull said. “I really want us to be considering carbon capture potential.”
Old-growth fires would produce approximately 4 percent charcoal, Hoffman-Krull explained. Modern fires, however, are not producing as much.
“We not only have a chance to mimic [the historic charcoal production], we have a chance to enhance it,” Hoffman-Krull said.
Processing 1.3 million tons of biomass is equal to removing 160,000 cars off the road in terms of carbon reduction.
Washington state forests
As the state’s commissioner of public lands, Franz oversees six agencies. She said her department is hyper-aware of wildfires, forest health and climate change.
“I hate the sun,” Franz joked. “It’s great for plantlife, but terrible for me.”
In 2018, Washington state experienced 1,850 wildfires; there were 54 in Western Washington in March of this year. The state’s 2018 wildfire season was better than 2015, Franz explained, with only 440,000 burning in 2018 as opposed to 1 million in 2015.
When it comes to grant opportunities for biochar and biomass model applications in San Juan County, Franz said, “I am happy to find a way to leverage who I am and where I sit in the legislative level.”